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Collier Gwin: I Lost My Temper. San Francisco Has Lost Its Mind

Treating homelessness and mental illness with tent cities isn't a great plan.

A large proportion of the homeless are mentally ill. They need caseworkers, folks to help administer psychotropic medication*, help find the right housing...Of course, this cohort doesn't vote so politicians are going to budget this stuff.

* A large proportion of mental patients can function better with the proper medication. They typically don't have the economic resources, the will or the transportation to gain access. Social workers who can help would be a smart investment for local govs.

Collier Gwin: I Lost My Temper. San Francisco Has Lost Its Mind

In a moment of frustration I let my anger at what the city has become boil over.

By Collier Gwin, WSJ

July 19, 2023 2:04 pm ET

I’ve been cleaning the sidewalk in front of my art gallery every morning since 1984. One morning in January, a mentally ill homeless woman made an unsanitary mess in front of my building. It wasn’t the first time. When she refused to move so I could clean it up, I lost my temper and sprayed her with water.

A passerby caught the incident on video and the 14-second clip went viral. The blowback against me was swift. I was arrested, charged with misdemeanor battery and ordered to stay away from her.

What the video doesn’t show is the context—namely the frustration and helplessness of my neighbors and me. For weeks we had done the right thing. We called the police and social services 50 times over 25 days—exactly as instructed by Mayor London Breed. Everyone who showed up told us they couldn’t move the woman, no matter what she was doing to herself and the community.

In my city, shoplifting, drug dealing and drug abuse aren’t treated as crimes, but my act of frustration earned me 35 hours of community service. This is another reminder of how broken San Francisco has become and how inhospitable the current laws are to small business owners and taxpayers.

My frustration was no excuse for what I did, but does anyone realize how dire the situation is in San Francisco? People have attacked me on social media, threatened my life, and flooded my phone with profane calls. I’ve struggled to maintain my business and personal health. Yet, within the confines of our city, I’ve received overwhelming understanding because people are equally frustrated at what our San Francisco has become.

After the incident, some city leaders claimed they had sought ways to support the woman. Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin told the San Francisco Chronicle that she wasn’t “disruptive or unpleasant,’’ fueling the public’s wrath against me. But in the police report of the incident, local merchants described her as “severely mentally ill” and noted that she often “steals food from restaurants, defecates openly in front of their businesses, performs sex acts upon herself publicly, screams at merchants and passersby and spits on people when they get close to her.’’

It was only because of media attention that she was quietly picked up and taken to the hospital. I hear she’s now back on the street.

Certainly, jail isn’t the place for a mentally ill woman. But living daily on the street shouldn’t be an option either. I don’t pretend to know how to restore the vibrancy of my beloved city. But I do know from this experience that most of the efforts of the police and social services—not to mention the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars spent on homelessness—are wasted. Ordinary people aren’t equipped to deal with these types of problems.

What I did was wrong. I regret losing my temper. But I hope this episode spurs my fellow citizens to demand that city leaders and the courts actually start doing something to resolve this crisis.

Mr. Gwin is owner of the Foster Gwin Gallery in San Francisco.

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